And a thought for the new year…

Note: This was originally going to be a short post, but as you can see it turned out rather long. It’s not a full and perfectly detailed scientifc/philosophical essay about this topic. Maybe one day I’ll actually write one of those – there’s certainly enough to say. But the main point is there.

There’s something which has been causing me quite a large amount of anxiety lately: fanatics.

No, not the terrorist kind. Not that I find any of those particularly wonderful, but at least I can understand why people whose countries have been invaded and bombed and oppressed for decades now might be a little pissed off.

Neither am I talking about the Christian type of fanatic, though I find those equally problematic.

I’m talking about Richard Dawkins.

Richard Dawkins, that is, and the group of so-called scientists and philosophers that are the big public defenders of atheism and disparagers of religion nowadays. Don’t misunderstand me, though: it doesn’t bother me that they are promoting atheism. It bothers me that they are promoting atheism. And how.

I really do wish good old G.K. Chesterton was still alive. Yes, he was a Catholic, and no, I’m not one, but he could poke holes in modern philosophical thought like no other. His faculties of reason and humanity were gigantic, and his ability to express these values far beyond mine.

Let’s see.

I quite like Stephen Jay Gould, but I don’t buy his idea of religion and science being non-overlapping magisteria. Science does have something to say about religion, and religion cannot claim the absolute historical truth about its holy books. Creationism is bullshit and will always remain such. I don’t think religion and science have to be best buddies. And, for the record, I am and remain agnostic. And I maintain that more often than not, religion has played a big part in oppressing people and ideas.

But I do have enough sense not to simply dismiss all religion as superstition. I may choose to believe that every single aspect of a religion is untrue, just as I may believe that Bill Maher is wrong in his libertarian politics. But that doesn’t mean that I think Bill Maher is a complete idiot. I may not choose to believe in an almighty creator, but if someone looks at this astonishingly complex universe of ours, and believes that it must have a creator, then I can understand that. Because I can understand human thought. Because I can value human consciousness.

Those, on the other hand, who dismiss all religion as stupidity and superstition, are quite simply dismissing a huge part of human thought and human philosophy extending back to the very beginning of our species. They dismiss the beauty and power of many religious stories simply because the stories didn’t actually happen – so what? Even if there never was a Jesus, that doesn’t make the Gospels any less powerful – just like the nonexistence of Zeus and the Greek gods doesn’t make the Iliad less amazing. Truth has many aspects, and historical truth is only one of them.

But it’s more than just this that bothers me. I talked very much like Dawkins when I was 16, and that’s OK – if you’re 16. No, the problem goes much further than just the philosophical fallacy of dismissing everything you disagree with as worthless.

It’s not good science.

Science is based on the principle of observation: it is an attemt to chronicle and exlain the facts as they are. You observe the world and from that you derive hypotheses about the nature of things, which you attempt to turn into theories by supplying proof. But you do not try to read your philosophy into the world, and then try to justify it. That’s what a fanatic does, not a scientist.

Take the whole idea of the meme, for example. It’s nonsense – an absurd idea that reduces the complexity of human experience and culture to something that will fit neatly into Dawkins’ debatable ideas about the nature of evolution. It throws all the work done over the last three thousand or so years out the window in the name of a simplicity that obscures instead of illuminating our understanding of humanity. It throws out sociology, it throws out politics, it throws out cultural studies, and mainly it throws out history. (Even if it sometimes claims that it doesn’t.) It denies two essential things: the complexity and interconnectedness of human culture, and more importantly, human awareness and thought.

Looking at genes the way he does is one thing. I think it’s debatable, personally. But that’s another issue, and I may very well be wrong there. (Verena, innocently reading one of his books without having any opinions about Dawkins – but knowing a lot about biology – told me that she thought that most of his arguments were missing big chunks and often ended with “and this is true because I say so.”)

Dawkins thinks religion is an evolutionary by-product coming from the fact that our ancestors had a genetic advantage if they believed their elders. Daniel Dennett thinks it’s the result of “misplaced intentionality”, that is the result of the human tendency to assign actions that they cannot understand to an active agent, i.e. a god or spirit. None of them, however, seem capable of thinking that religion has something to do with humanity’s desire for understanding, with human thought. In all their descriptions, they are essentially taking humans out of the equation. But humans aren’t genes. We are conscious. We think.

William Blake said that to generalize is to be an idiot, and to particularize alone is the distinction of merit. I mostly agree. Of course, when it comes to science, a certain amount of generalization is necessary. This is fine and normal with the natural sciences – but not when it comes to humanity. To look at the history of religion in terms of memes tells us nothing. It is essentially an ahistorical approach that disregards a great many aspects – from economics and politics (the use of religion to oppress, the tendency of the poor and despairing to turn to religion; the socio-historical conditions in general) to the actual philosophies involved. Of course, for the fanatic all religions amount to the same – a senseless belief in the supernatural – but that is simply nonsensical. If you can’t see the profound differences in philosophy between the many religions, then you simply don’t know what you’re talking about anymore. And if you can’t see religion as part of history, and history as a very specific series of events, the one based upon the other, a sequence of cause and event (and human agency) then you’re lost in a realm of abstraction that has little to do with reality.

(This also leads to some fairly unpleasant political ideas. Dawkins will easily accept that problems regarding Islamic people are derived from Islam, throwing out history and politics in the process, and presenting an utterly simplistic portrait of human nature. The same goes for many other scientists and philosophers of this direction.)

The problem with both memetics and evolutionary psychology is that they do not begin by observing reality, but by what certain scientists want the truth to be. From there they proceed with a ridiculous attempt to cram everything into one system. Every aspect of human behaviour must have a biological origin. But this is manifestly idiotic – we are capable of thought, of self-reflection. We do things for a multiplicity of reasons, not all of which are immediately apparent, or the same in all people. Furthermore, the best things that we do we do for no reason at all. That’s something believers in evolutionary psychology cannot comprehend, because it doesn’t fit into their religion. Precisely because we are thinking creatures, we do a great many things that have no purpose but themselves. Art, in all its forms, is meaningless. We have reasons for doing it, of course, but those are not evolutionary. Love is meaningless. Horniness isn’t – our sex drives are most definitely biological. But to think that sex and love are the same is as silly as to think they have no relation at all. Rituals. There are official reasons for rituals, and there is a history to rituals, but the point of most rituals is actually the ritual. Finding an evolutionary reason for that is silly. Finding a psychological and philosophical one is wise.

Another good example is the existence of, shall we say, “free thought”. Yes, there may be limitations in terms of brain damage, and what our brain may be genetically hardwired to do – sometimes we can overcome these, sometimes we can’t. But the reality of our ability to think freely is something that, like gravity, cannot be denied. The fanatic’s response to this is essentially to wildly proclaim that it isn’t true, instead of investigating why it is and how. “Death, disease, insanity, are merely material accidents, like a toothache or a twisted ankle. That these brutal forces always besiege and often capture the citadel does not prove that they are the citadel.” said Chesterton. You may agree or disagree, but when it comes to the human ability to think – and other issues – more than a few believers in evolutionary psychology seem to be proclaiming the citadel nonexistent when they are, in fact, repeatedly walking face-first into it.

The problem, to me, with the celebrity defenders of atheism is that they are religious. They are fanatics. They’ve thrown science out the window and replaced it with a pseudoscience that will result in nothing but mechanical half-baked truths. They’re not arguing from the position of pure awe and wonder at the universe of a Carl Sagan, or the belief in humanity’s worth of an Isaac Asimov, but from a rather confused desire to see their own little religion win the day, because it is more reasonable. In doing so, they sound more than a little like the Christians of the past few centuries talking about the savages.

Nowhere has this become more clear to me, incidentally, than in Richard Dawkins’ latest statements about his desire to investigate the potential harmfulness of fairy-tales. Everything is encapsulated here: the dismissal of human culture, the inability to understand the multiple layers of meaning attached to most things (the frog turning into a prince isn’t just about a frog, as I suppose anyone could tell you) and the essential dismissal of the human ability to think (so what if a child believes a frog can turn into a man – does this really make us that much more gullible, or is it part of our evolution as individuals?). It’s a dismissal of thought and, even more dangerously, of imagination.

I don’t think that any of these people mean badly. I’m sure Dawkins is kind to furry animals and mostly a progressive-thinking man, even if his fanaticism prevents him from analyzing the world in a more complex way. But we live at a time where we need voices speaking out for reason, we need voices speaking out against fanaticism. And yes, we need eloquent atheists who say that the universe can be perfectly wonderful without a god or gods. But voices like Dawkins’ may convert, but they won’t enlighten.

I’m not saying science needs to be respectful of religion. But it does need to be respectful of two things: human intelligence, and scientific principles. Ditching those in order to achieve a victory for science is like ditching freedom to win a victory for democracy. The end cannot be achieved without the means.

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3 Comments

  1. Jakob

     /  January 11, 2009

    Nice post! I’ve reasoned over this too and comed to similiar conclusions, but not in far as developed as these.

    And that about ranting about atheism being 16, some years ago (when I was 16) I was exactly the same 🙂

  2. I get what you are saying. I think I agree, for the most part.

    I have read and enjoyed many of Richard Dawkins’ books. However, I do find his “fanatic” atheism and complete dismissal of religion kind of… silly, I guess. To those who dismiss religion out of hand I’d prescribe Douglas Adams’ speech “Is there an Artificial God?” and then David Abrams’ article “The Ecology of Magic”. The book A Story as Sharp as a Knife, by Robert Bringhurst is also good, for showing why myth is valid and interesting. There’s a review of it on my blog. Have you read any of those?

    I’ve never read any Carl Sagan, but at least at this point in my life I am writing from “the position of pure awe and wonder at the universe” and emphasizing the spiritual and artistic aspects more than the science-y stuff. When I was 16 was actually about the time I started reading a lot about evolution and artificial life and the mind and those popular science kind of books… I don’t know if I would have identified as “atheist” but the concept of a “God” or “gods” certainly had little place in my worldview. Now, I understand better what people mean when they use that word. What does being “agnostic” mean for you?

  3. I’d prescribe Douglas Adams’ speech “Is there an Artificial God?”

    I read that, but didn’t like it. I find Adams’ simile of the puddle to be rather flawed, though I do see the point he is making. I actually feel that Adams’ writing suffered a lot when he became obsessed with Dawkins. It became a lot more juvenile, in a way.

    What does being “agnostic” mean for you?

    To me it means that I don’t know and don’t pretend to know the ultimate meaning and nature of the universe, though I would quite like to find out. It does not mean that I am any kind of relativist, though.